From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

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Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

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Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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The End of an Era

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Cover of Some Persistent Themes, the catalogue of a solo exhibition by David Boxer held a this home in 1988

This is a sad moment in Jamaica’s cultural and artistic history. I understand that the house of David Boxer, the late art historian, artist and collector, is slated for demolition, to make way for what will probably be another run-of-the-mill apartment complex, of which Kingston hardly needs any more. For those who did not know him, Boxer was the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Director/Curator from 1975 to 1991 and then its Chief Curator until 2012. His art collection was one of the most significant in the island, and indeed in the Caribbean, and covered the breadth and depth of Jamaican art and visual culture. His house was a must-visit for any overseas-based art researcher coming to Jamaica and he always welcomed such visitors. Many well-attended and memorable art-related receptions and exhibitions took place there. The house and collection have been featured in many art journals, most recently in Art+Auction in May 2017. Boxer’s own art was ground-breaking in the Jamaican context and deeply influenced the trajectory of many younger artists. He received the Order of Jamaica in 2016.

Boxer died nearly two years ago, after a long illness, but it had been his vision, expressed on many occasions, for his house and collection to be preserved as a museum. Setting up a museum like this requires significant start-up and operational funds, a workable legal framework and business plan, and specialist professional oversight and adequate staffing. Usually some form of state support is also needed for such initiatives to be sustainable. Perhaps Boxer’s plans were not realistic but his hopes for a museum represented an important implied recognition of his collection’s public cultural value, and he had actually established a foundation to this effect.

The house itself has architectural and historical value, even though it had been significantly expanded while Boxer owned it (and mainly to accommodate his growing collection). It is a quite beautiful example of the Cuban-Spanish style in Jamaica, with some Art Deco influences, and with screen-printed floor tiles and other period details. Very few such dwellings remain in Kingston and if the current trend is anything to go by, they will soon all be gone. Other famous Jamaicans had also lived there. According to Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins, the house was built in the 1920s and originally owned by Douglas James Verity, who then sold it to Director of Tourism, John Pringle in 1961. Margaret Bernal recently told me that the Jamaican national anthem was actually written there (the Verity and Sherlock families were related by marriage). In other countries, such sites would have been proactively protected and preserved, or at least thoroughly documented. The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera museums in Mexico City and the Frick Collection in NYC come to mind.

Part of the collection has already been dispersed. A number of works had been sold prior to and after Boxer’s passing and there was an auction some weeks ago, accompanied by an estate sale (which some have, distressingly, described as a flea market, with items lying on the floor). The auction appears to have been mainly of secondary works from the collection and also included a significant amount of Boxer’s own work — too much of it for a single auction in my estimation. According to a newspaper report, about half of what was on offer sold during and after the auction.

It is as yet unclear what has happened, or is to happen, to the most important works in the collection which included iconic examples of Jamaican art that surely ought to have been in public hands – major works by the likes of John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Ronald Moody, Carl Abrahams, Kapo, Everald Brown, David Miller Senior and Junior, Colin Garland, and Milton George, along with key examples of Boxer’s own work. A promotional Observer article just before the auction cryptically stated that certain works from the collection would be not be sold but would be exhibited “from time to time.” No specifics were provided, in terms of which works have been reserved for this purpose and how these will be kept and exhibited. Will these works be available to the public, students and researchers? Are they properly stored and conserved? More specifically, will they be available to or at the National Gallery? The house and collection may be private property, and what happens with private property is as such private business, but significant cultural property is a matter of public interest. A clear public statement from the Estate would be helpful to quell the current speculation and anxiety.

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Taming the Lion? A Few Thoughts on the International Reggae Poster Contest

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

The International Reggae Poster Contest, which was launched in 2011, was the brainchild of the Jamaican poster artist and designer Michael Thompson “Freestylee”. His vision was quite specific and went beyond his obvious desire to celebrate the international cultural impact of reggae through a poster competition. He saw it as a platform to promote the establishment of what he had named a Reggae Hall of Fame, a high-profile reggae museum on the Kingston Waterfront that would pay tribute to the greats of the genre and for which he had even envisaged the architect, Frank Gehry. It was a romantic vision, which was quite different from the more scholarly and didactic Jamaica Music Museum that was being development by the Jamaican government, and Thompson was obviously mindful of the immense cultural and urban renewal effect of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. He also conceived the contest as a fundraiser to support the Alpha Boys School, in tribute to that school’s seminal role in the development of Jamaican music, and supported the school in various other ways, among others contributing its distinctive new logo.

The National Gallery of Jamaica, after the cancellation of the Jamaica 50 exhibition it had originally planned, agreed to show the 100 best of the inaugural competition, along with poster designs on the same subject by the jurors, under the title World-a-Reggae, which was held from September 30 to November 10, 2012. What better way to celebrate Jamaica 50 than to highlight the global impact of reggae culture, we thought? It was certainly remarkable that the competition had attracted a total of 1142 entries by 678 designers from 80 countries and included interesting designs. The exhibition was well received and concluded with a fundraising auction of the exhibited posters, with the proceeds going to Alpha.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

Despite the spirit of goodwill that surrounded the project, there were some rumblings from the start and it was clear that the project did not resonate equally well with all, locally. Local designers appeared to be uninterested and there were very few Jamaican submissions of which only one made it in the top 100, by the illustrator Taj Francis, who took the fifth place. And some of the local architects were not amused at the idea that Frank Gehry might design a high-profile Jamaican museum, as this letter to the editor illustrates. The National Gallery of Jamaica, which I headed at the time, took the position that the project was worthwhile but declined to host the competition exhibition annually, as we were pressured to do; instead, we offered to include a smaller selection of the best posters in the Jamaica Biennial but this offer was not pursued by the organizers.

Since then, the contest has been held annually, although the organizers have recently announced that it will now become a biennial event, and the associated exhibitions have been shown in various parts of the world. Michael Thompson passed away unexpectedly in 2016 but the project was continued by his Greek business partner, Maria Papaefstathiou (the co-founder of the contest). The exhibition in 2017 returned to Jamaica, and the posters from the 2017 and 2018 contests were shown at the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, with which Papaefstathiou had developed an active working relationship (several Freestylee reggae posters are now featured as murals in the airport). The 2018 exhibition is now also on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica, where the exhibition has thus returned after five years and, if the last-moment notifications are anything to go by, this appears to have been arranged at short notice to coincide with Reggae Month. The exhibition will on view there until May 26, 2019.

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At the 2018 Reggae Poster Contest exhibition, National Gallery of Jamaica, February 2019 (photo Veerle Poupeye – all rights reserved)

In the local media, the International Reggae Poster Contest has been regularly covered by Richard Johnson of the Observer and most of these reports have included lamentations about the lack of Jamaican participation and success in the contest. On January 9, 2018, for instance, or three weeks before the deadline of the 2018 competition an article appeared under the header No Jamaican Entries: Local Participation Missing from Reggae Poster Contest. In it, Papaefstathiou is quoted as saying: “I am very disappointed with the lack of posters from Jamaica. I hope until the last minute there will be some submissions. Actually, I will take the opportunity of this article, and I will urge them to participate. This contest is about their country and their music. It’s a shame to see posters from all over the world and not from reggae’s own land.” The article concludes with similar wording as I had noted in previous articles by Johnson on the subject: “No Jamaican has ever won the contest. In the first two years Jamaican artists fared reasonably well. In year one (2012), Taj Francis placed fifth, with the eventual winner being Alon Braier from Israel. In year two, Rohan Mitchell copped fourth position to Balazs Pakodi of the United Kingdom who took the top spot. Since then, Jamaican artists have failed to fall within the top 100 entries to the competition.”

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